Pressing matters

I finally bought an ironing board and iron. Before you say, “What?!? Have you been that wrinkled the whole time you’ve been in Japan” let me point out that almost all my shirts I wear to work are Brooks Brothers Non-Iron shirts. That’s not a plug, that’s not a brag, that’s just a fact. As you may have discovered in previous posts I am very brand loyal. That’s why I still use Tide in Japan. Back to my shirts … yes, I finally bought an iron. My ridiculously bad dryer has a tendency to wrinkle almost everything by tying them in knots. I’ve gotten some of the most amazing coupling of clothing out the dryer. My online review of the National NH-D502 – It sucks! I knew that before yet I bought it. My dryer definitely wrinkles things. I noticed my available wearable shirts started reducing over time, and I was tired of wearing the same shirts, so I admitted that it was time to buy an iron and ironing board. I really don’t like ironing, but it is one of the things you have to do on occasion.

Buying an ironing board presents a series of problems in a major metropolitan area when you don’t have a car. First of all, an ironing board is big. In Japan of course they have miniaturized versions of iron boards. However, I am an American, so I need a BIG and TALL ironing board. After consultation with Tomo, I decided to try Bic Camera because they have everything, Tokyu Hands, and maybe Muji (my favorite brand as you know).

When I went to Bic Camera, I was shocked to see the only ironing board available, a typical American style ironing board, was over $100. I know the yen is really strong now, but even if it was weak it would be one heck of an expensive ironing board. Yikes! I had to ask if they had others. They did, as a matter of fact. One was shaped like a torso, and one was kind of a strangely shaped collapsible board American style. The other American style board was only, ONLY, 5400 yen, or about $55. I said I would think about it. Actually, I said something that I thought was equivalent to, “Let me think about it.” Who knows if the translation was literal.

I went to Tokyu Hands and was confronted by the same torso boards and the exact model I saw at Bic Camera for about $10 more. Since Bic Camera has a big selection of irons too, it seemed clear that I had to head back to Bic Camera. Once back at Bic Camera, I requested the board that I had seen before. That is, I tried to request the board. How do you describe an ironing board that isn’t on display to the salesperson in Japanese? The first round I got a lot of Japanese style tabletop iron boards. I had to get creative in my Japanese … but finally he brought out what I wanted.

Bic Camera offered about 30 different irons. More choice, ranging from $9 to over $130. Clearly the $9 iron was out as was the $130 iron. I prefer cordless irons, I guess because I am left-handed and there always seems to be a complication for lefties with irons although right now I can’t figure out the complication because it seems you could arrange you, the board, and the iron to account for being left-handed. Maybe I’m just such an unskilled iron-er that I can’t deal with the cord (after all, I’ve admitted to hating to iron). How did I make my choice? I chose the best seller! Hey, if everybody likes it, it should be good. I got a Panasonic NI0CL406-H. I guess I know what I will be doing tomorrow.

My iron

Also, when I was at Bic Camera originally scouting the irons, I recalled that I wanted new cables for my DVD to AV set / television set. My current connection is strange – I got some strange interference in the video when I hooked up the video to the TV and the sound to the AV set? Huh? Checking out the original cables they looked poorly insulated so I thought better cables would help. More money. I bumped into colleagues while I was struggling over just what cable to buy. Luckily my DVD player is carried by Bic so I could check it out. It probably took me 45 minutes to choose the cables. Don’t worry, no pictures here. I hope they work.

Back to the ironing board … an ironing board is not something you can just stick in a bag. I was really kind of embarrassed how ugly the board was and thought, “What the heck, I’ll take a taxi home.” It is a little cold out, and the train station is really busy, and I thought it would be better if I just grabbed a taxi. However, the thought that I could spend $2 on the subway of $10 on a taxi made me say, “Screw it, I am PROUD of my ironing board. I have nothing to be ashamed of. I am a strong, confident male with a rather silly looking ironing board.” I made it home incident free. The entire shopping trip was over two hours.

Later in the evening I went out to get a new stocking cap because I don’t like my current cap. After shopping, my current cap seems a lot nicer. I went to Banana Republic and their knit caps were something like $50 to $100. I kid you not. Wow. I bought a coat at BR (30 years everyone!) in the US and it is about $120 more expensive in Japan. Approximately 40% more.

I think when I get lonely or depressed I make myself go out and shop as something to get me out. I need to make sure that I don’t become a spending prairie fire while I am over here. The past month with my trip to the States, the purchase of a new computer, and the vacation at Hoshinoya, I’m feeling a little out of control. Can I single-handedly take two countries out of recession? I don’t know but I sure am trying.

Who knew that buying an iron would result in over 1000 words.

Separation anxiety

I am in uncharted waters. My passport is out of my hands and I am in a foreign country. Will I ever see it again? Actually, I have relinquished my passport many times to get visas. But in all those cases, I was in the US. My passport expires in just a little over 6 months. It is recommended that you have a passport valid for at least 6 months whenever you enter another country. I’m not sure why, but that’s what is recommended. Also, my visa expires in 6 months. I figured it was better to get a new passport before I get a new visa. When is it a good time to give up your passport? Right before holidays of course!

In Japan, they strongly urge you to renew by mail. I had to mail my passport with a self-addressed trackable mailer inside, my applications, my passport, my pictures, and a money order. A money order?!? Apparently my US credit is not acceptable. All passports are printed in the US, so I have to wait for the new passport to come back from the US. They say it takes 3 – 4 weeks. So … if I look at that, will I have my passport in time for Christmas? I don’t know. However, it doesn’t look like I’m going back to the States this Christmas. For the first time. Ever. However, I hope I get the passport before Christmas just in case, and especially before the New Year. The week AFTER Christmas is a holiday in Japan and I wouldn’t mind taking a few days then to travel. However, everyone in Japan is off, so travel is a nightmare.

I had to go to the Post Office to get a money order in USD. You can imagine how easy that is. The first Post Office I went to at lunch didn’t have the capability to do money orders. If looks could kill I would not be available to type this blog entry. I left work early (actually on-time but it felt early) to go to a more central post office that was capable of money orders. I had to fill out a block form like you do for standardized tests. Of course, I wrote my name as JONATHAN FISH. Another place on the form said I had to write as it is written on my official documents so I wrote JONATHAN NEAL FISH. Nope. Bad, bad, bad. I had to update the upper name to include the middle name. I’m not sure why, but I had to. Then, after much hemming and hawing, I was instructed that I had to write my name FISH, JONATHAN NEAL. Actually the comma is probably controversial I added that myself. Of course, this was after I completely filled out the form including the to address and the from address. I got a new form and started all over. I was a little grumpy about it.

The exchange rate I got was surprisingly good for these days – just a little over 100 yen per dollar. Then they hit me with a 2000 yen service charge (that’s about $20). After all the processing of everything I had written, I got the money order. None of the stuff that I had filled in for sender / receiver got printed on the money order and it had to be hand written on the money order instead. WHY DID I JUST DO THAT ON THE TEST FORM? Of course, I was super diligent to get it right.

After 40 minutes I had my money order in the passport pack and it was on its way. Now I’ll fret like crazy and hope that I included everything that was required, that everything was filled out properly, and that nothing gets lost. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy Japan!

Why not Kyoto?

After I bought my new Macbook, I suddenly had a laptop surplus. I happened to be chatting to a friend, expressing a little buyer’s remorse, when he suggested I sell the computer to him so he could give it to his sister for college. Hey, that’s a good idea! She lives in Kyoto so I had a great excuse to travel to Kyoto this weekend. In addition, a colleague suggested that we drive there this weekend as well. So my plans converged and Saturday was designated as a trip to Kyoto.

We really didn’t have plans – just playing it by ear. As my colleague suggested, it is the difference of being tourists and living here. Just do what we wanted to do. We met Reina at Kyoto Station to “deliver the goods” and have lunch. I had never met her, so it was a little awkward. “Hey, here’s a really nice computer that is a little old. I hope it works for you.”

We were hoping to have a little bit of fall colors in Kyoto. Last time I was in Kyoto was in November, 2003 (I think). The colors were great – I think it was Thanksgiving Day or a weekend before or after Thanksgiving. This time, we were a BIT to early. However, there were still some good colors. We went on a scenic drive and got a few good shots.

One view along the scenic route in Kyoto

 

Another view along the scenic route in Kyoto

 

After leaving the scenic route we were trying to get to Kinkakuji. Unfortunately, it was getting late and the traffic was bad. As we were heading to Kinkakuji, we passed Ryoanji. Since I was the only one who had been there, we decided to stop. It is one of my favorite places in Kyoto, so I was thrilled to stop again. Ryoanji is famous for its Zen rock garden and one of my favorite black and white photos is from Ryoanji. I snapped a few more pictures at Ryoanji. The property has a lake, and I snapped a few pictures as we walked around it. It was getting dark, so the pictures are a little dark as well.

One of my favorite black and white photos

 

The Zen garden at Ryoanji

 

The Zen garden at Ryoanji

 

Reflections on the lake at Ryoanji

 

After Ryoanji, we decided to cross Kyoto to go around Higashiyama. We wanted to go to an okonomiyaki restaurant in the Sanjo / Gion area of Kyoto for modanyaki. Kyoto traffic was remarkably bad. Really, really bad. We were also were planning to go to Kiyomizudera temple. Every fall, the temple and the trees are lit. Since this was the first weekend, it was crazy busy. We made it to the area, parked the car, walked to dinner (and bumped into another colleague in the crowd who seemed to find the coincident unremarkable) and enjoyed the scrumptious okonomiyaki (Kansai style). We then walked to Kiyomizudera. It was late but still crowded. My pictures were really disappointing. I was frustrated by the crowd and not paying enough attention so I technically wasn’t as sharp as I needed to be. Oh well.

A Zen garden we stumbled upon

 

On the way to Kiyomizudera

 

Kyoto at night from Kiyomizudera

 

It was great though to be in Kyoto and made me realize how lucky I am to be here. I finally got home around midnight. Definitely a long day.

The full Hoshinoya post

I’m back from Hoshinoya. What did I do there? Nothing! Well, not exactly nothing. The point was to relax. I certainly did. The place feels a little cultish, like I said before. We arrived at an outpost, where we were greeted by people in funky dyed, old but modern clothing with what looked like heavy quilted jackets. They looked comfortable. We were ushered in to a reception area where … oh too scary … that’s almost exactly what I wrote before. I won’t repeat. Here’s a picture of the musician.

The reception musician

 

We were served an interesting rice welcome drink. That was the beginning of the indoctrination. We were asked if we wanted ゆかた (yukata – basically a kimono) or さむえ (samue – pants and a shirt – like surgical scrubs but the shirt has buttons). We then got in to a purplish Nissan Cube and were shuttled from the reception area to “the village.” The village is somewhat isolated from the outside world by hills, sight lines, and appropriate fencing. The road to get us to our room in the village was one lane and very curvy. Clearly it was not supposed to feel like a road. Any time I saw a Cube shuttling guests to the rooms at a slow speed negotiating all the little curves, it reminded me of a Disney ride. Another cultish thing is the Hoshinoya logo below.

The mysterious logo

They even placed the logo on the grill of the Cube, replacing the Nissan logo. It was a neat effect, but I’m not sure what Nissan would actually think about it. The logo reminds me very much of LOST. I hope pregnant women who go to Hoshinoya don’t have troubles. I wish I had taken at least one picture of the car but I didn’t think about it. I was there to relax, not document.

Mark, an Australian reared in London but living in Japan took us to our room. Our first room, that is. We had booked a waterfront room, what I assumed to be on the water level. Well, we got a second floor room that didn’t match the layout of the website. It was a nice room, but wasn’t what we expected. Both Tomo and I expressed a little disappointment. As Mark was beginning to explain the rules of the cult and the services available, we decided that we’d accept his offer to check if another room was available. Nothing like being an ugly American (with backing of a native Japanese). We were shown another room and given the option to decide which we wanted. Tomo and I clearly liked the second room better than the first, so that was pretty easy. I think it was a good choice.

As Mark was explaining the rules to us in the new room, I noticed it was pretty dark. Really dark. I asked if there was a way to make the room any brighter? After all, I had brought several books to read and was looking forward to relaxing in the living room and reading them. He said, “Well, the light is part of the atmosphere but there should be a desk lamp somewhere.” He searched the room, couldn’t find it, and ordered another to be sent to the room. Later, as I was checking out the closets, I found a desk light. However, by that point, the damage was done so we had two desk lamps. We actually used one of them for reading. I think the closet was too dark for Mark to see the light, so to speak. We had to wait for the light to arrive as well as the room key! Tomo, who has gotten too accustomed to the service at the Ritz-Carlton, noticed that they do the big stuff well at Hoshinoya, but can’t seem to quite get the small stuff right (they had trouble getting the proper sized samue to me, we had to ask several times for a tea strainer in the library, little things that the Ritz gets immediately apparently). No, Tomo doesn’t stay at the Ritz, but his artists do so he deals with the Ritz on a frequent basis.

The relaxing living room

 

The dark, dark bedroom

 

The bathroom where you can't see in the mirror

 

We relaxed for a while and then caught a Cube to a sister property to have dinner at a French restaurant called, “No One’s Recipe.” We had the simple degustation wine menu (champagne, white, red) and the simple course Menu d’automne. We both agreed that it was good but we had been spoiled by “La Table” by Joel Robuchon in Nagoya. Still, it was nice to have a seven course meal in the middle of the countryside in Japan. To all my foodie friends out there, and especially Chuck, I didn’t take pictures of each course. Tomo did! I’m not the food porn type. I enjoy a good meal, but I don’t love to eat so I’m not inspired to capture it forever. Sorry.

After dinner we asked the Cube driver (to drop us off at the onsen) so we could have a nice post-dinner soak. And indeed it was nice. We walked the rest of the way to the village and called it a night.

The onsen entrance

 

Tuesday I got up before Tomo and was able to spend a lot of time reading in the living room (with the aid of the reading light). We were a week or two after the peak of the fall colors but there was still some around.

There were still some maples in glory

 

The village center

 

Tomo in the fall

 

It was COLD out, the lows were around freezing. The days were mostly overcast as well so that kept things on the cool side.

We wandered about to take the fall pictures, had a simpler lunch, and then decided to try the natural mineral bath in our room. It was nice having a wood tub in the bathroom. After the relaxing bath, we watched the lighting of the floating lanterns.

Lighting the lanterns in the rowboat

 

A small path to a small island

 

The spa and meditation bath

 

The room we almost had

 

We went to the library to enjoy some tea, the atmosphere, and to do a little more reading, then off to dinner. Here are some pictures of the library and Japanese restaurant.

The library

 

The library

 

The Japanese restaurant dining area

 

The Japanese restaurant dining area

 

We had a great soba meal at the same restaurant where we had lunch near the onsen, probably fresher tasting than the French the night before, and for a fraction of the cost! After dinner we took a ton of night pictures, trying to capture what the place feels like at night. The pictures below are all over-exposed to get the idea. If I properly exposed them they would be pretty dark.

Hoshinoya night scenes

 

Hoshinoya night scenes

 

Hoshinoya night scenes

 

Hoshinoya night scenes

 

Hoshinoya night scenes

 

We went to the “Meditation Spa” after our picture session. This is a little different experience. It is meant to be experienced alone I think. The shower stalls are semi-private compared to the “Hey World!!” onsen experience. You walk a course in about waist high water. First you go into a “light” room that is brightly lit and relatively big with a very high ceiling. After you meditate in that room, you move into this really dark tunnel about 1 1/2 people wide into a low ceiling, very dark room. Only the water is lit. I felt like I was in the womb or in formaldehyde. I was NOT comfortable in the closed dark room. I didn’t panic, but I can say I wasn’t relaxed. Tomo enjoyed it though. It got pretty hot in that room. We slowly made our way into the light, went to the changing room, and then chilled in the relaxation room before returning to the room.

Today we had a traditional Japanese breakfast in the nice dining room, then went back to the room before heading back down to the onsen for one last soak and shower. Then a little Cube picked us in from our room and we took a shuttle bus back to reality. Sigh.

Tomo is ready to go back. We didn’t experience the spa or the Japanese restaurant for dinner, so there are some inexpensive (not!) things to consider the next time. It was very relaxing though, and I’m glad we did it. One thing that cracked me up was that Tomo didn’t want to sleep in because he wanted to experience the place and relax. It makes sense, sort of!

Back to Mito

Before I went to Hoshinoya, I had a kind of slow weekend in Tokyo. I went up Friday night and stayed with some friends. They were going on vacation the next day, so I got a key to their really nice apartment. Saturday Tomo had to work, so after we met for lunch I went to Mito for the first time in a couple years. I wanted to see my friend Maeno-san and his wife and child. We had a good time catching up and playing with trains. It is really funny to see Haruto-chan and my niece. They are the same age (two weeks apart) and Haruto is all boy while my niece is all girl. Haruto likes trains, trains, cars, trains, and trains. His Japanese and mine are about the same level. It was funny to see him wearing a rocket t-shirt I had gotten him. I figure the t-shirt came out for my visit but when we were looking at pictures later there was another picture of him in the same t-shirt. Hey, when your dad does orbital mechanics you wear those things proudly. He was not shy at all and greeted me immediately with a “Konnichiwa Fish-san!” I mean he came running up to me to say that. As soon as he realized I was leaving at the train station he burst into tears. Awwww.

We had a good time as you can see below.

Haruto

 

Haruto and his trains

 

Haruto and me

 

The happy family!